Today, I welcome one of my fellow Austen Authors: Joana Starnes lives in the south of England with her family. A medical graduate, in more recent years she has developed an unrelated but enduring fascination with Georgian Britain in general and the works of Jane Austen in particular, as well as with the remarkable and flamboyant set of people who have given the Regency Period its charm and sparkle.
Many thanks, Regina, for welcoming me here today, to talk about my latest release, ‘The Unthinkable Triangle’.
It recently occurred to me that each of my novels has a medical reference, and this one is no exception. I suppose it cannot be helped. I left the profession a while ago, but seemingly the profession did not leave me. Which is probably why I wrote about Mr. Bennet’s heart condition in ‘The Second Chance’, of Mr. Darcy’s deep cut treated with slices of agaric in ‘The Subsequent Proposal’, or of his injury acquired in a duel with Wickham in ‘The Falmouth Connection’.
In ‘The Unthinkable Triangle,’ as well as my first novel, ‘From This Day Forward’, which in some ways are each other’s counterpart, the medical angle goes a little deeper because, in both, Colonel Fitzwilliam is treated for severe war-related injuries under Mr. Darcy’s roof. In both novels, Darcy goes to fetch his cousin from wherever he was languishing and brings him to his house to recover under a physician’s expert care – and Elizabeth’s gentle ministrations. And in both cases, perhaps predictably, her presence at the bedside has its effects on Colonel Fitzwilliam’s tender heart.
The stark difference between the two novels is that in the first Darcy is assured of Elizabeth’s love and loyalty – they had been happily married for almost a year – while in the second the situation is reversed. Mr. Darcy is the one who seems to face the dire spectre of unrequited love, as he steadily keeps watch at his cousin’s bedside, while Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Colonel Fitzwilliam betrothed, tends the colonel.
Of course, in ‘The Unthinkable Triangle’ the role reversal does not continue till the end. I am one of those people who cannot read or write a story where Elizabeth marries anyone but Darcy. But for a while, the lovelorn Darcy seems to have no answer to his quandary – because his deep affection for his cousin makes him recoil in horror from pinning his hopes on Fitzwilliam’s death.
The following excerpt from ‘The Unthinkable Triangle’ provides a glimpse into Mr. Darcy’s struggles, as he is caught between two very different kinds of love:
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The Unthinkable Triangle
Excerpt from Chapter 5
They attended him in turns, just one of them, or alongside the doctor, or in constantly changing pairings. Beyond that first dawn, when he felt compelled to walk out and leave them to their heartfelt reunion, Darcy no longer sought to regulate his comings and goings, regardless of who was keeping watch over his cousin at the time.
It came as no surprise that, more often than not, it would be Elizabeth. Georgiana was too young and Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Annesley too old and frail to be kept by the bedside for too long. So, time and again, and especially in the grim hours of the night, they would find themselves caring for him together. Raising him to help him drink, take nourishment or cough. Cooling his brow when the fever mounted. Cajoling him into taking the vile draughts that Dr. Graham was insistently prescribing. Watching him snatch a few minutes of fitful slumber and agonising for him when his rest was disrupted by bouts of racking cough that were supposed to help, yet brought nothing but pain. Exchanging frightened glances when the horrible bouts of coughing showed no sign of abating. Rushing to bring him a warm drink when they did abate, and striving to hide their fear when the cough would recommence to torment him until he would collapse back on his pillows, exhausted and breathless.
Then they would hasten to refresh the flannels applied to his affected side, soak them in the hot decoction of camomile and elderflowers that the housekeeper had prepared at the doctor’s instructions, then wring them and spread them on his chest again. And if their hands touched as they did so, this sparked no untoward emotion in Darcy. It could not, not now. No more than sitting there watching Elizabeth stroke Fitzwilliam’s brow as she whispered tearful, disjointed words of tenderness and comfort.
It sparked no jealousy, no envy. The horrific sight of his cousin fighting for every breath – for his life, even – had drained him of all shameful jealousy, leaving just oppressive anguish.
Every past instance of begging for an answer to his heartache over Elizabeth’s engagement to his cousin returned to torture him with all the sharpness of excruciating guilt. This was not the answer he had begged for! Not this! Merciful God, not this!
‘Let him live!’ was his one and only prayer, as flashing recollections of days of boyhood came unbidden to join ranks with dark thoughts from recent months and point accusing fingers, like as many ghosts of Banquo. Unlike Macbeth’s, Darcy’s own hands were not stained in blood, but every fibre of his being knew that his cousin’s death was not the answer he had prayed for. It was not a deliverance, but the worst possible sentence.
‘Good Lord in Heaven, let him live!’
This year in Bath, the apothecary’s trade was a new feature at the Jane Austen Festival and I had the privilege to see Mr. John S. Smith, Consultant and Performance Historian, impersonate ‘James Buchan, the Apothecary’. This is just one of the characters that Mr. Smith brings to life with such sparkle and vivacity. For more details please visit http://www.selectsociety.co.uk and you might have the great pleasure of seeing him perform, as he has many appearances in the UK and US.
No doubt for comedic value, he entertained us with tales of coughs treated with ground woodlice, of bruises cured with coins allegedly touched by King Charles I and of distempers of the brain relieved by placing the half of a shelled walnut on one’s forehead.
The real Dr. Buchan (William, not James, and physician rather than apothecary) recommended a trifle more advanced cures, and in the writing of medical scenes I owe a great deal to his treatise on Domestic Medicine published in London, with a second edition in 1785.
There I read about the well-known practices of blood-letting, blistering, cupping, purging, induced vomiting and several other methods of treatment that leave us in wonder how the patient survived the cure, as well as the disease. I also found all manner of details such as the use of an extract of sea-squills (a marine plant) as expectorant. I learned of pleurisy being treated with cabbage leaves or a combination of elderflower, camomile and mallows made into a decoction and applied to the affected side; of pectoral infusions made with linseed, liquorice root and colt’s foot leaves; of acute fevers treated with ‘infusions of the bark’ (willow bark) and ‘sweet spirit of nitre’ (a solution of ethyl nitrite in alcohol).
Of all of the above, it is only the ‘infusion of the bark’ that makes sense to the modern reader, and these days we know the extract as Aspirin. But, to my surprise, I found that, alongside the grim blistering and the leeches, Dr. Buchan also recommended precepts surprisingly in tune with modern ones, such as the benefit of fresh air in the sickroom, limiting visitors to reduce the risk of infection, or not overloading a shivering and feverish patient with bedcovers.
So I must thank Dr. Buchan for teaching me how to treat Colonel Fitzwilliam’s injuries. Perhaps I should say that, either thanks to or in spite of the treatment, he recovers. If you would like to learn what happens next, please leave a comment to enter the international giveaway of one Kindle copy. And be not alarmed, the few medical references are there just to add a little Regency colour. My fascination with old-fashioned medicine is my own and, just as the excerpt shows, ‘The Unthinkable Triangle’ is very much a love-story, not a medical treatise. That task must be left to Dr. Buchan. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the story.
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GIVEAWAY: LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW TO BE ELIGIBLE FOR A KINDLE eBOOK GIVEAWAY OF “THE UNTHINKABLE TRIANGLE.” THE GIVEAWAY WILL END AT MIDNIGHT EDST ON MONDAY, OCTOBER 12.